Native Performers in Wild West Shows: From Buffalo Bill to Euro Disney

By Linda Scarangella McNenly. 2012. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. 272 pages. ISBN: 978-0806142814 (hard cover).

Reviewed by David Stanley, Westminster College, Utah

[Review length: 1408 words • Review posted on November 12, 2014]

This volume covers well-trodden ground for the most part. Extensive studies on the image of Native people in popular culture, the history of William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s Wild West and other spectacles of that era, and the role of Indian people in those pageants have been thoroughly researched by several generations of scholars. And although Cody never referred to his entertainments as “shows”—preferring instead to describe them as “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West,” as authentic re-creations of the historic frontier—many others, including McNenly, have done so.

The portrayal of Native culture in these extravaganzas—usually featuring a replicated “buffalo hunt,” an attack on a stagecoach, and a “war dance”—generally presented Native people as exotic savages, prone to bizarre rites and cruel violence. This is the conclusion of earlier scholars, including Vine Deloria, Jr., Daniele Fiorentino, Sam Maddra, L. G. Moses, and others, who have closely examined the use of Indian people in these Wild West “shows,” some of the most popular public entertainments of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Only the advent of radio, talking pictures, and the Great Depression made touring companies of humans and animals economically impossible. Circuses continued, of course, but they had a level of the exotic and the spectacular that Wild West productions could not match.

In reviewing and heavily citing these earlier studies, McNenly claims to offer a new interpretation. She summarizes her thesis: “Still, though Wild West shows have produced stereotypical representations of Native people and power relationships have been unequal, there is evidence that Native performers have found ways to use this encounter for their benefit and to experience identity in their own ways, both in the past and in the present. In short, in spite of exploitation and commercialization, there has also been agency” (12-13). The key terms here are “identity,” by which McNenly seems to mean self-awareness and self-satisfaction as Native persons, as distinct from “white” people, and “agency,” which in her usage combines notions of self-determination, individualism, commercial motivation, and perhaps a kind of covert resistance.

Unfortunately, McNenly’s thesis appears to be more assertion than cogent argument. There is little support for her statement that Native performers, who toured with shows all over North America and, in the case of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, for extended stays in Europe (at times wintering there) achieved any kind of Native “ identity” that was different than or somehow superior to what they achieved on their home reservations. They received recognition from audience members, to be sure, many of whom were allowed to wander backstage and observe Indian people relaxing, conversing, or making and often selling traditional crafts. In this sense, the Native encampments were akin to the side shows in a circus. Indian people were put on display, usually forced to appear in “Native costumes,” and stared at and photographed. McNenly, working from a distance of more than a century, has little evidence to suggest that performers returned to their homes with a stronger sense of identity or a deeper commitment to their role in American life as Native people. There is little tracing of the performers’ lives after their tours were over, beyond the obvious statement that performing in the shows brought additional income and the opportunity to travel. Even this point is problematic, for McNenly does not mention except in passing the many illnesses, deaths, and out-and-out homesickness that many of the Indian performers suffered.

McNenly’s point that performance brought agency to Indian people, with the performance arena depicted as a “contact zone” (in this argument, she relies heavily on the work of Sherry B. Ortner and Mary Louise Pratt), is also primarily asserted rather than demonstrated. An example: “If we measure agency only in terms of power—Native performers’ ability to control or resist employment policies and conditions—then Native people did not wield agency. As mentioned earlier, this approach to identifying agency centers on analyzing power in terms of domination and resistance. However, if we also recognize agency in terms of intentions, or cultural projects, then Native performers wielded agency. Native people sought to meet their own goals and needs....Native performers worked within the constraints of OIA [Office of Indian Affairs] control and a political milieu characterized by assimilation policies (rather than transformed it) signifying an identifiable form of agency” (66). Here, the syntax is confusing and the argument seemingly self-contradictory.

The first three chapters of the study focus on the Wild West shows of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, with much of the work concentrating on the extravaganzas mounted by Buffalo Bill, Pawnee Bill, and the Miller Brothers. This is ground previously covered by a number of studies, on which McNenly relies heavily. Her next three chapters break some new ground, however. Chapter 4 covers Mohawk performers and an annual summer pageant originally mounted by Euro-Canadian impresarios at Kahnawake, Quebec, in the early-twentieth century. Eventually the pageant was taken over by Native performers, who reshaped it to fit their cultural preferences and traditions, removing some—though not all—of the Hollywood-based images, performance styles, and costumes (such as Great Plains “war bonnets”) that had been a feature of the earlier versions of the pageant. Using the resources of the Kanien´kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Center in Kahnawake, McNenly is able to record changes in the pageant over the years. Her research is buttressed by interviews with descendants of key performers and photographs, including a shocking studio portrait of Esther Deer (who performed as “Princess White Deer”) dressed in a Plains war bonnet, a warrior’s bone breastplate, beaded moccasins, and what appear to be buckskin short-shorts, a good example of the degree to which Native performers allowed themselves to be exploited, at least in the first years of the pageant.

McNenly’s fifth chapter concerns, as its title indicates, “Euro Disney’s Spectacular Wild West Show,” which provides great opportunities for mockery, especially in the years since 2006 when McNenly completed her research. Since then, she says, the “cowboys and Indians” have been organized into teams to compete together, rather than against each other, in rodeo events. Even more surprising is “the most recent, and more substantial change to the Wild West show to include Disney characters such as Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, and Chip ‘n’ Dale. In fact, the show is now called ‘Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, with Mickey and Friends’” (164-65).

In her sixth chapter, McNenly focuses on Buffalo Bill Days, founded in Sheridan, Wyoming, in 2003 and visited by the author in 2005. According to the author, to present the program the Sheridan Heritage Center hired touring acts—the Great American Wild West Show in 2003, and a group called the Westernaires in 2004. In 2005, the program was organized by local residents, who hired Native Spirit Production to provide the “Indian” component for the festival. For various reasons, Buffalo Bill Days that year included only a minimum number of Indian performances, which were primarily derived from the intertribal powwow circuit, using dancers from Wisconsin and the Southwest. McNenly asserts that these pan-Indian performances are an assertion of agency, but her argument falters in the face of the evident commercialization of these events, especially given that Buffalo Bill Days apparently ceased to exist after 2006.

It is difficult to ascribe either the enhancement of identity or the ascription of agency to a hodge-podge like this, and in the end McNenly’s argument remains unconvincing, dependent largely on theoretical jargon and other, better-documented sources. If identity is to be established and agency asserted, it must be demonstrated by long-term positive effects among the people involved; that evidence is lacking in this study and may, in fact, not be accessible to contemporary researchers, if it existed at all.

Near the end of his all-too-short writing career, the Blackfeet poet, essayist, and novelist James Welch published his remarkable The Heart Song of Charging Elk (2000), a work of fiction based on factual occurrence but unmentioned in McNenly’s study. The novel concerns a Native performer in Buffalo Bill’s pageant who is taken to Europe and, falling ill in Marseilles, is left behind when the troupe departs for a round of performances. Entirely on his own, with no French and very little English to his name, Charging Elk makes a remarkable series of adjustments and adaptations that make it possible for him to not only survive but to make a place for himself in France, meanwhile exerting the truest form of agency and demonstrating the flexibility of Native identity.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.